By Bapsi Sidhwa
We were alone together one afternoon in Lahore when, in a fit of remorse, my mother suddenly unburdened herself of an old anguish. This was about fifteen years ago, when I was going through a spell of undiagnosed illnesses. Averting her penitent-schoolgirl’s face and displaying a chiseled profile, she solemnly said: “It’s my fault. I was young. When your ayah said she wanted to go to her village for a month, I panicked; I told her she could go only if she took you …. A few days after she returned, you got your polio.”
It must have cost her to confess. So far as I knew no other living soul was aware of this indiscretion: or at least no one had told me. To think of the pall cast over her already troubled life by such a deep well of guilt. On consideration, though, my father must have known. And, even if he had tried to shield my feckless parent from the wrath and ridicule of his austere mother and her principled daughters, they surely must have noticed my prolonged absence.
My mother’s family belonged to Karachi. Since it is customary for the first child to be delivered in the maternal household, and since my grandmother was dead, when it was time for my birth my mother went to her eldest sister Dhunmai’s house in Karachi.
Dhunmai’s husband, Kaikobad Kanga was a doctor. I was born when the European vogue to keep the environment around babies antiseptic and germ-free was all the rage even in Karachi. As behooved an up-to-date doctor’s wife, my conscientious aunt boiled and sterilized everything that mattered, and tied a white surgical mask over her mouth when she attended to me. Instructed to do the same, my mother nursed me with her nose and mouth tucked in the mask’s pristine purity.
The onslaught of the horde of germs from the buffalo-infested ponds and dung-plastered abode walls to which I was so abruptly exposed in my ayah’s village was more than my fastidiously nurtured constitution could withstand – and the feisty polio virus got me.
I was about two. My distraught mother promptly hauled me off to Karachi, and delivered me to my aunt’s surgically masked and tireless care. Dhunmai’s almond oil massages and wakeful nights must have served me well because a decade later I was not only able to climb lofty mountains but to run down them, too – and with such fleet balance that I thought I flew.
However, before I could achieve this fleet-footed surety, I underwent a series of procedures involving manipulation, heavy plaster of Paris casts, and steel calipers – all of which culminated in an operation to straighten the steep ballet dancer’s pose of my right foot.
Up to then I’d had no problems with my self-esteem; having polio as a child was like a benediction. The precipitous angle of my fallen arch set me up for favor and attention. Although I cannot vouch that I felt sorry for the herd of normal -footed children, I did, because of the kindness shown me, feel especially endowed. The prosaic accomplishments of other children were transformed into sensational feats of dexterity and intelligence when performed by me. It also helped that I could contort my body in extraordinary ways. Another favor bestowed on me by my disease.
Limping audaciously and teetering on my toes, I held my own as I ran with the other children in nursery games. Gregarious by nature and trusting too – life had not yet taught me to be wary – I was blissfully content attending school.
As the consuming regime of ultraviolet rays, casts and massages to stretch my retracted tendons got underway, a doctor – I don’t remember now if it was Colonel Bharucha or Colonel Mirajkar – counseled my parents not to send me to school. In my novel Cracking India, I transmute some of this reality into fiction:
Father sniffs and clears his throat. “What about her schooling?” he asks, masking his emotion. I can’t tell if he is inordinately pleased by the condition of my leg or inordinately disappointed.
“She is doing fine without school, isn’t she?” says the doctor. “Don’t pressure her …. She doesn’t need to become a professor.” He turns to me. “Do you want to become a professor?”
I shake my head in a firm negative. “She’ll marry – have children – lead a carefree life. No need to strain her with studies and exams,” he advises, thereby sealing my fate.
And seal my fate he did.
In retrospect, the creeping encroachment of my isolation, the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among other children, caused an increasing bafflement and disarray in my mind. Inevitably this led to an erosion of my self-regard. The psyche that was left intact by my polio, and in fact had waxed robust as its consequence, was destroyed, unwittingly perhaps, by the doctor.
My happy interlude at school brought to an end, I was handed over to Mrs. Penherow’s gentle tutoring. This middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman sat me down at a small table beneath shady trees, and tutored me for two or three hours a day. I remember the solitary tedium of those hours. But, as I have concluded from the unfolding history of my particular providence, almost every apparent misfortune eventually turned out to be its opposite.
When on my eleventh birthday Mrs. Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, some favorable star must have kicked in. The novel sent me into an orgy of reading from which I have still to recover, and this orgy of reading jump-started me as a writer.
Bapsi Sidhwa is a distinguished writer of Pakistani origin. She is perhaps best-known for her 1991 novel Cracking India (also published as Ice Candy Man in Britain) which was made into the film Earth by Deepa Mehta in 1998.